Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
An Interpretation of Ezekiel 33:11
by Herman Hoeksema
Say unto them, as I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn form his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
One of the texts often appealed to in support of the teaching of a common grace of god and a sincere desire of God that every human be saved is Ezekiel 33:11 (Ezekiel 18:23, 32 is a similar passage). Rev. H. Hoeksema gave an explanation of this text in his book, Het Evangelie, of de Jongste Aanval op de Warrheid der Souvereine Genade (The Gospel, or the Most Recent Attack on the Truth of Sovereign Grace).
Because the text is still used in the Reformed community to promote the doctrine of common grace and because the book in which Hoeksema's explanation of the text appears has not been translated, I have translated the section of Het Evangelie that contains the explanation of Ezekiel 33:11 (pp. 206-212). It should be kept in mind that Hoeksema's interpretation of the passage was given in the context of controversy with a Professor Heyns (of Calvin Seminary), who explained Ezekiel 33:11 as teaching a universal grace of God and a sincere desire of God that every human be saved, i.e., a well-meant offer of salvation.
David J. Engelsma
We can certainly agree with the professor when he says that we would be doing violence to the text, if we would read: "I have no pleasure in the death of the elect wicked, but I have pleasure in this, that the elect sinner turn and live. Turn ye, O elect sinner!" I do not believe that Heyns has ever heard of such an interpretation. By writing this, he shows he correctly understands neither the text nor the explanation of his opponents. At any rate, I will not believe that he does not write about these things in all seriousness. And so, he makes a straw man here, in order then, in the following paragraph, to demolish it with all seriousness.
Certainly, if someone would be found who would read the text this way, not only would he do violence to the text, but he would also rob the text of its power. This is so, not because there is in the text some comfort for the reprobate (the sinner who does not turn), much less because the text teaches that God loves the reprobate (the sinner who does not turn); neither because there is a well-meant offer of grace for the reprobate wicked here (the sinner who does not turn), for even such a one as this would not be able to understand the text in this way.
Rather, the simple reason is that the viewpoint of the text is not that of God's sovereign predestination—neither of election nor of reprobation. The viewpoint is ethical. The question is: how should we then live, if we pine away in our sins? Is there hope for the sinner with God? Therefore, the answer is: Most certainly, in the way of turning! The sinner will taste that God is merciful and gracious, that he abundantly pardons, if he turns. the viewpoint is thoroughly ethical. indeed, the sinner who turns is the elect; and, indeed, the sinner who does not turn is the reprobate; nevertheless, you would be doing violence to the text if you were to substitute the terms of predestination for the words wicked and converted.
The divine demand to turn does not come to the elect only, but also to the reprobate; and it does not come to the elect and reprobate as such, that is, viewed as the predestinated, but it comes to them as rational-moral creatures. And viewed thus, it then remains eternally true that the way of life for the sinner is the way of turning. Also Heyns should have no trouble seeing this. We do not read the text in the way Heyns presents it.
In the second place, it should not be difficult for professor Heyns to see also that there is in this text not only no universal, well-meant offer, but, in fact, no offer at all, to be sure, Heyns asserts that there is, but he will never be able to make this evident.
When you analyse the text closely in all its parts, you arrive at the following: 1) God says something about Himself. he says that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; indeed, that He has pleasure in his turning and living. 2) God swears to that which he says of Himself with an oath: as truly as I live! 3) On the basis of this oath, in which God reveals what pleases Him, He comes to the house of Israel with the demand and call to turn. if God really has pleasure in the turning and the living of the wicked, why should they then yet die? It is only because they hate God and love the way of wickedness!
There is, therefore, absolutely no offer in the text. Even if [it] were true that we were allowed to read the text thus: "I have no pleasure in the death of a single wicked person," Heyns would still not make any headway in proving his notion of a universal offer. Also this, the professor himself will surely see.
In the third place, I believe also, that it will not be difficult for me to convince Heyns that there is in the text no element of a universal love for sinners. If men in the Christian Reformed Churches had not, already for a long time, become accustomed to such language, they would be astounded to read of professor in the Theological School that he believed in a universal love for sinners. pray tell, what is the difference, really, between a universal love for sinners and universal saving grace? Everyone will agree that there is no difference here. Heyns himself can see no difference. And what now is the difference between this notion and that which our fathers at the Synod of Dordt have condemned as un-Scriptural and un-Reformed? There is no difference. And yet Heyns proclaims this universal love for sinners without shame, in the paragraphs quoted above. God wills the salvation of all his creatures, writes the professor, that is, He wills the salvation of all men. Therefore, the "wicked" of Ezekiel 33:11 may not be limited. God loves all wicked men, with the desire to save them, with a great love for sinners. And He swears to this with an oath!
And when Heyns writes all this, there seems to be no one whose hair stands on end; at any rate, there seems to be no one any longer in the Christian Reformed Churches who reaches for his pen. How is the gold become dim!
And yet, it is not difficult to convince even Heyns that the text in Ezekiel 33:11 by no means teaches this, teaches this so little that even no wicked person could receive this impression from the text. i will now not speak of "elect" and "reprobate" wicked, as Heyns supposes that I must do in order to deny a universal offer. this is not the viewpoint of the text, as we already noticed.
But I will indeed make the distinction between "wicked who turn" and "wicked who do not turn." This distinction is very plainly grounded in the text itself. And then I dare say that also Heyns does not have the courage to read the text this way: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, whether he turn or not." In the first place, this would stand in diametrical opposition to Holy Scripture. For the sake of His own name, God has, in fact, a holy pleasure, not in this, that the wicked does not turn, for that displeases Him; but in this, that He casts the wicked who does not turn into eternal destruction. God will even laugh at their destruction. To prove this, I could adduce a hundred texts, but I proceed on the assumption that Heyns knows them as well as I do.
In the second place, such an interpretation takes no account of the second part of the text. It simply will not do, to make wicked in the first part refer to all wicked men without distinction. Such an interpretation is also guilty of doing violence to the text. For in the first part, the Lord declares wherein He has no pleasure; in the second part, He declares wherein he does have pleasure. We have to do, therefore, with a contrast. now the Lord declares in the second part, that He has pleasure in this, that the wicked turn and live. He has pleasure, therefore, in the living of the wicked, only if he turns. Turning and living are inseparably connected with each other. but from this, it also follows that the wicked who do not turn are excluded in the first part of the text.
Therefore, we may undoubtedly read the text this way: I have no pleasure in this, that the wicked does not turn and dies, but in this, that he turns and lives. Whoever does not turn is certainly killed by God with eternal death, and God certainly ahs pleasure in this death as punishment for sin, for it is a manifestation of His justice. But whoever turns shall live, not because he turns, for that would never be able to earn life for him, nor to blot out his former sins; but because God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked who turns, but in the eternal mercy has blotted out his unrighteousness. And so, Heyns will have to agree with me, that there is no universal love for sinners in the text, but a love for the sinner who turns.
Thus, in the end, Heyns will also have to agree with me, that, although there is here no mention of elect and reprobate as such, the text is, according to its content, so obviously particular, that there is absolutely no possibility that the reprobate wicked would be able to receive the impression that God here promises or offers him anything. He has no share in the matter here. For he never turns.
On the other hand, the text, also by virtue of its context, is exactly intended as rich comfort for God's elect people. For they are the wicked who, in fact turn. And Heyns will agree with me, that this turning is a gift of God, a gift of his grace, by His Spirit and Word. The professor will also agree with me, that God bestows this gift of turning on whom He wills and that He bestows it only out of pure, sovereign grace on His elect.
And if then those elect, those wicked who turn, cannot understand that they shall receive life in the way of turning—since that turning does not blot out their guilt or give any right to life—then God swears by Himself that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but in this: that they should receive life in the way of turning.
Turn ye, turn ye, then, O house of Israel (God speaks here also to the Church), for why should you die? If I had not been merciful to you with eternal mercy, you would have to die in your sins; then no turning would make any difference, nor would there even be a way of turning open. But now it is otherwise. There is no reason that you should die. Turn ye then to me and live!
Herman Hoeksema was born on March 12, 1886 from Johanna Bakema and Tiele Hoeksema in Hoogezand, in the province of Groningen, the Netherlands. After studying at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids/Michigan, he began his ministerial career in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, one of the largest Reformed congregations in the United States at the time. In 1924 he refused to accept the three points of common grace, which became official church dogma of the CRC. The result of this controversy was that he and some other ministers with their congregations were put out of the Christian Reformed Church. These men then established the Protestant Reformed Churches. Hoeksema served as a long time pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids. He also was professor of theology at the Protestant Reformed Theological School in Grandville, Michigan for 40 years. Herman Hoeksema died in September 1965 at Grand Rapids.